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Two Weeks in South Africa, 1999

Umkomass and Aliwal Shoals

At Umkomass, I steered toward the beach and easily found the dive shops there. The one I chose was Whaler, which has a web site (try There was a kindly lady there just locking up the shop who took the time to show me to a room, just 80 rand right next to a shared toilet and bath. She also booked me for dives the next day at 7 and 10, with a 5:00 wakeup call. She showed me where I could leave my car inside a locked compound rather than leave it on the street, where there were no guarantees. Finally, she showed me the bar, where, with an impressive view of the last rays of sunshine over the Indian Ocean, I met the other divers. I traded beer purchases with Anthony, a Portuguese guy who'd settled there as a divemaster and married a beautiful "coloured" lady who was working in the kitchen at the Whaler's restaurant (Durban has a noticable population of Indian extraction). Anthony gave me a tip on where to eat, a place in the tiny town up the hill with a good brew called Pickled Pig, the only decent dark bitter draft I'd yet had in South Africa. Some other divers came up from the Whaler and joined me at my table, so I had company as I munched my steak, though the conversation was mostly, as usual, in Afrikaans.

Next morning, I was awakened at 5 and I went downstairs to get suited up in the pre-dawn chill. Down on the beach, the sun poking over the surf didn't do much to take the edge off the winter, though Durban doesn't get that cold. The boat was made ready, the usual rubber inflatable dingy with a pair of 85 hp Yamahas at the stern, for the usual charge into the waves. A miscalculation would flip the boat and send a dozen dive tanks to the botton, but the skipper was skilled, white this time, with a sense of humor, and managed to gun us over the edges of the 5 foot waves. The sea was fairly calm at dawn and the Regge sharks were waiting in their cave, our destination, where they consistently congregated in the winter. We saw a couple dozen of them, lazily swimming about in the water, grey-green with steely eyes. Swimming to and fro our paths crossed often. Their presence would draw about 500 divers on this one day, some, like me, making the trip out twice. Other than sharks, there was a large turtle, a stonefish, a mass of fish attacking a squid, devouring it like vultures, and some unusual crayfish.

When I'd had enough diving, charges for the room at the lodge, two dives, and all equipment were about $50, which was incredibly cheap for this kind of activity. By one p.m. I was heading back down the N2 in an effort to make Umtata by dark. I'd been told it was 5 hours from Umkomaas. I was driving through Transkei now, a former black homeland area that had received little in the way of development despite the existence of a wild coastline with excellent tourist potential. Due to my time constraints, and the need for 4-wheel drive on the coast, I had to whiz through the region. I reached Umtata just before sundown as planned after driving through parched land, always with the shadow mountains looming just out of perspective. But I didn't like what I saw in Umtata, an unappealing town with a single place to stay, the Holiday Inn. I could tell that if I stayed there, I'd be confined to the compound all night. I decided to use what remaining light I had to make a run for whatever I might find further up the road.

Next episode:
Beeline to Knysna

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Last updated: December 20, 1999